Digital Communities: 'IPhone on Steroids' Gives Law Enforcement a Biometric Boost

Plymouth County, Mass., Sheriff Joseph McDonald calls the county's latest crime-fighting tool "an iPhone on steroids."

A fitting description for the device, which he said enhances and strengthens the ability of law enforcement officers to identify suspects and retrieve their criminal records in seconds by capturing biometric data.

"The technology is a game-changer," McDonald said. "It's going to enable officers to really get a handle on who the bad guys are, and make it more difficult for these bad guys to hide from us."

This month, Plymouth County became the first in the country to deploy the Mobile and Wireless Multi-Modal Biometric Offender Recognition and Information System (MORIS). The system is part of a national network, designed to help law enforcement agencies keep track of sex offenders, gang members, inmates and illegal aliens, said Sean Mullin, president of Plymouth-based Biometric Intelligence and Identification Technologies (BI2 Technologies), which developed MORIS in partnership with Apple.

Paid for by a $200,000 federal grant funneled through the Massachusetts Sheriffs' Association, the technology is a sleeve that fits over an iPhone and captures electronic fingerprints, iris scans and photographs. The biometric data then gets sent to an encrypted and secure cloud-like database.

In the last couple of years, Mullin said, technology advances and the buildup of data have made biometrics a wave of the future of law enforcement.

"The demand for it has been unbelievable," Mullin said. "It provides officers with the tool they need while out in the community to be able to positively identify who they have in front of them and understand their criminal background."

The basic device costs $1,500, Mullin said, but agencies would need to fork over $3,000 a piece for the "pumped-up version." In Massachusetts, the award allows for the deployment of MORIS in all of the state's 14 sheriffs' departments and up to 28 local police departments. And while the use of biometrics to obtain information goes back decades, McDonald said, the big change is how fast officers can send and retrieve that data on the street.

But according to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Massachusetts, the use of these technologies raises a few civil liberties questions: For example, who will be subject to being photographed and entered into a database? (Law enforcement officials say only suspects will be photographed.)

To get answers, the ACLU submitted public records requests to the Brockton Police Department, the Massachusetts Sheriffs' Association and the Plymouth County Sheriff. The system has never been deployed by local police departments, so the ACLU wants to find out how its use may impact individual rights, wrote ACLU of Massachusetts staff attorney Laura Rótolo in a letter to the three agencies.

"This is an experiment using the people of Brockton as guinea pigs," Rótolo said in a release. "This request for records is the first step toward ensuring that scarce resources are used wisely, and that civil liberties are protected."

By Russell Nichols - June 25, 2010

Photo: The Mobile and Wireless Multi-Modal Biometric Offender Recognition and Information System (MORIS). Photo courtesy of Biometic Intelligence and Identification Technologies